Airline Passenger Protections

airplane Are you one of the millions of passengers flying over the holidays? Do you know your rights if your flight is cancelled or overbooked, or if your checked bag doesn’t arrive when you do?

Today’s WatchBlog explores airline consumer protection issues and the Department of Transportation’s actions to protect passengers. Listen to our podcast and read on for more.

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Have Airline Services Improved?

Airlines’ treatment of passengers has come under scrutiny following several high-profile incidents, including the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight. Despite such incidents, Transportation’s data on denied boardings and mishandled baggage suggests that service has generally improved since 2008, particularly since 2014.

Figure Showing Measures of Airlines' Service, 2008 through 2017

At the same time, however, we found that the rate of passenger complaints that Transportation received increased about 10 percent from 2008 to 2017 for airlines we reviewed.  These complaints were most commonly about flight delays and cancellations, though in recent years, Transportation has increasingly received more complaints about disability issues, oversold flights, and fares. But complaints that Transportation received only account for a small percentage of total complaints—officials estimated that airlines receive 50 complaints for every 1 complaint lodged with the agency.

How does the Department of Transportation protect consumers?

Transportation can issue and enforce consumer protection requirements. For example, Transportation recently published new rules or expanded existing rules by restricting long ground delays, increasing compensation for passengers who are denied boarding, and requiring certain airlines to post information on their websites about their fees and on-time performance.

To help airlines understand and comply with these and other consumer protection requirements, Transportation conducts 5 key activities:

  • Issuing guidance and consulting with airlines.
  • Processing passenger complaints. Staff received and responded to more than 18,000 passenger complaints in 2017.
  • Inspecting airlines at airline headquarters and airports to assess their compliance with consumer protection requirements. Staff conducted airline compliance inspections at 18 airports in 2017.
  • Investigating potential consumer protection violations. Staff initiated 287 investigations of airlines in 2017.
  • Enforcing airlines’ compliance with consumer protection requirements through warning letters, consent orders, and financial penalties. Although Transportation levied nearly $18 million in financial penalties on selected airlines from 2008 to 2017, the airlines paid out only about half of that amount. The remaining amounts were either credited to airlines for service improvements for passengers, or potential future payments.

Transportation also has an aviation consumer protection website, which provides tips for avoiding common travel problems and information on topics like unaccompanied minors and family seating.

While Transportation has taken steps to protect airline passengers, we identified a number of additional actions it can take to ensure airlines’ compliance with consumer protections and to educate consumers. These include developing performance measures for compliance activities, improving procedures to more consistently categorize complaints, and seeking feedback directly from consumers about what they know about their rights.

To learn more, check out our full report


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Andrew Von Ah at Vonaha@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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